Donald F. Stevens’ revisionist account challenges traditional historiography to examine the nature and origins of Mexico’s political instability. Turning to quantitative methods as a way of providing a framework for examining existing hypotheses concerning Mexico’s instability, the author dissects the relationship between instability and economic cycles; contradicts the notion that Mexico’s social elite could have increased political stability by becoming more active; and argues that the principal political fissures were not liberal vs. conservative but were among radical, moderate, and conservative.
Ultimately, Stevens maintains, the origins of that country’s instability are to be found in the contradictions between liberalism and Mexico’s traditional class structure, and the problems of creating an independent republic from colonial, monarchical, and authoritarian traditions.
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Origins of Instability in Early Republican Mexico
By Donald Fithian Stevens
Duke University PressCopyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Instability and History
Independence transformed Mexico from Spain's largest and most prosperous colony to a sovereign nation suffering economic decline and political strife. Historical writing on early republican Mexico has emphasized the new nation's weakness: the loss of Texas in 1836, the "Pastry War" with France in 1838, and, most dramatically, the loss of half its national territory to the United States in the War of 1846-1848. The reasons for the rapid transition from a strong, stable colony to a weak, unstable nation remain poorly understood. Nearly twenty years ago Josefina Vázquez wrote that "Mexican historiography has forgotten the entire period from 1821 to 1855 almost systematically." Neglect, she suggested, resulted from the complexity and gloominess of an age universally regarded as a blot on the national record. The promise of independence was not fulfilled; Mexican politicians fought among themselves while the United States grabbed the northern half of the new nation. Mexico suffered economic decline as well as political reverses. While the United States industrialized, the Mexican economy faltered. John Coatsworth has estimated that most of the difference in economic productivity between the United States and Mexico can be attributed to nineteenth-century political instability. In the words of Edmundo O'Gorman, the period presents
a spectacle of unspeakable sadness: ... a tedious rosary of pronunciamientos and golpes de Estado which seems to demonstrate nothing more than the congenital incapacity of our people to govern themselves and to establish the basis of a civilized life together. That, in effect, has been and continues to be an interpretation much touted as true by foreign historiographers and one that finds adherents even today among our resentful and less intelligent reactionaries.
These observations may be less true now than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. Scholars in Mexico, Europe, and the United States have made notable contributions in these last decades, adding to our understanding of this crucial period in Mexico's history. But the central problem of the era, the collapse of stable government, remains largely unexplained. All too often historians retreat to outdated historiographical notions to simplify the explanation of Mexico's political instability. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, president of Mexico on eleven distinct occasions, has been the principal scapegoat for the trials of the young nation. One man's flawed character has been blamed for Mexico's problems, as if Santa Anna's personal weaknesses infected the entire nation.
The contagion has been called caudillismo. Social scientists have developed a series of hypotheses to explain the contrast between the immediately apparent struggles for power and the more intangible foundations of political conflict. The caudillo thesis discounts political motivations and regards caudillos as unprincipled opportunists who mimicked political discourse to hide personal ambitions. This emphasis on caudillismo illustrates the degree to which historical writing on this period has rested on biography, and on the biography of this one man in particular. As Moisés González Navarro noted, Mexican historiography has "suffered from the inconvenience of explaining Mexico in terms of Santa Anna rather than Santa Anna in terms of Mexico."
In early republican Mexico politicians gained and lost power with bewildering rapidity. Traditional political history has been unable to encompass the complexities of this turbulence. The lack of consensus among historians about the roots of instability in these years can be traced to the inadequacies of the traditional historical method of archival research when applied to this problem. Historians tend toward the study of decision-making in stable polities and toward the study of "meaningful" conflicts that can be termed revolutions or civil wars. Instability falls between these two cases. It presents unusual problems for the historian in that it is neither stable nor apparently significant. Yet these judgments tell us more about the methodological biases of qualitative historical research than about the nature of instability. Analyses of decision-making and policy formation are suited to stable periods when institutions behave with some consistency and decision-making processes can be studied on the basis of evidence preserved in archives. Traditional analysis introduces its own characteristic biases and assumptions, but the traditional historical method presents further difficulties specific to periods of instability. For unstable periods it is hard to generalize on the basis of decisions since administrations were brief and decisions were not enforced or were quickly reversed. In this period of Mexican history the most important political decisions were often to replace cabinet ministers or overthrow a government; but the result has been considered merely rotation, not revolution.
By accepted standards, revolution occurs very infrequently in Latin America, and historians have been reluctant to apply the term to early republican Mexican history. Few authorities recognize even the possibility of social revolution in this period. On the contrary, political motives have been heavily discounted. Political positions were mere affectations, and personalism and opportunism outweighed ideology. Many writers argue that there was no drastic social or economic change because politicians did not want change; they only wanted to sack the treasury.
The obstacles to historical studies of instability are considerable. Instability appears to be a paradoxical concept. It signifies considerable motion without much movement in any direction for very long—hyperkinesis combined with apparent stasis. The visibility of these struggles to occupy government posts contrasts with the more obscure motivations for political conflict. A constantly changing cast of political actors makes it difficult to analyze those policy decisions that are made and the power exercised in enforcing them. The frequency of forced resignations of presidents and changes in the compositions of cabinets makes the assumption of the generality of power even more questionable. When politicians cannot maintain themselves in the hierarchy, how much power can their policy decisions express?
There is a further paradox. On one hand, there are considerable theoretical and practical obstacles to the study of instability. On the other, there is no shortage of explanations for Mexico's postindependence instability; there are rather too many distinct and contradictory hypotheses. Perhaps instability was caused primarily by short-term economic and fiscal changes, in which case political differences may be superfluous; or instability was chiefly the result of intractable political conflicts that were rooted in long-term social and economic differences. Instability might have resulted from a lack of political experience, or from politicians with inappropriate social backgrounds or inadequate socialization, or from programs and policies ill-suited to Mexico's independent political situation.
Examples can be cited to support each explanation. An empty national treasury apparently coincided with the inability of politicians to hold power for very long. Yet at the same time, radical artisans and provincial leaders armed the masses to attack armories and government offices. Evidence to support such divergent, if not contradictory, hypotheses might be considered proof of a complex and multifaceted explanation, but selected examples are never a substitute for systematic testing of a hypothesis. In a period when almost every conceivable incident and alignment actually happened at least once, we should not be surprised that multiple examples might be found to support any sort of explanation. Hypotheses have proliferated in the absence of systematic empirical studies.
Given the limitations and inherent biases of traditional historical research, the temptation is strong to focus on those brief interludes of relative calm in this confounding muddle. In fact, much of the best historical writing on the early republic occupies these precarious niches. We have two major studies of the relatively stable 1820s. Much of the best research in early nineteenth-century Mexico concerns the Church, an institution far more stable than the government and more accessible to historians than the military archives. For the 1830s and 1840s historians tend to shift to the North to explain the independence of Texas and the war with the United States. González Navarro's Anatomía del poder concerns the crucial but relatively stable interlude after the war with the United States and prior to the Revolution of Ayutla. By these devices historians have been able to pursue traditional research in the area of political instability. The results are the best work on the early nineteenth century. But archival research consistently leads us away from instability because of its methodological bias for order and stability Studying the lulls in a period of instability avoids rather than explains the central problem. The rapid rotation of government personnel is not an annoying distraction or merely the prelude to civil war. It is the essential feature of instability in Latin America.
In the end, Mexico's instability was transformed into civil war. After the mid-1850s Mexican politics were clearly polarized into opposing armies, thus clarifying their conflicts and facilitating historical research. Overt conflict between clearly defined opponents can be discussed using military analogies for strategic advantages, sources of support, and victory or defeat on the battlefield. Historians frequently have conjectured that the liberals were supported by some sort of middle stratum of the population, perhaps from the peripheral regions of Mexico, while the conservatives were supported by the old privileged classes usually resident in the national capital. This regional sociopolitical explanation has its roots in the military conflicts of the 1850s and 1860s, but the extension of this explanation back into the conflicts of the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s has been problematic.
Richard Sinkin pioneered the quantitative approach to the study of nineteenth-century Mexican politics. His examination of the leaders of the mid-century Reform revealed the generational, occupational, and regional profile of the liberal leadership at mid-century, the issues that divided them, and their difficulties in stabilizing government and institutionalizing political power. Sinkin's work, and Peter Smith's analysis of the structure of politics in the twentieth century, demonstrated the utility of an explicitly quantitative approach to the study of Mexican politics, but little has been done in the last decade to build on this fundamental work. Quantitative methods have specific advantages over traditional historical research and, when extended to a broader political spectrum over the first decades after independence, can provide a framework for an examination and reevaluation of the existing hypotheses concerning the nature and origins of Mexico's political instability.
This book attempts to analyze, quantify, and test the major explanations for Mexican instability proposed over the last several decades in the historical and qualitative social science literature. Most historians have chosen to use words to define and answer these questions, and, given the commonly accepted historical standards, qualitative historians can often avoid explicit discussion of methodology. The decisions about which subjects are important to study and which causes are likely to result in significant effects are usually implicit. No one intentionally begins to study the insignificant or the irrelevant, but conclusions may seem plausible and logical even when based on erroneous interpretations due to problems with sample size or the failure to systematically select cases. All conclusions require at least an implicit judgment as to size; for example, whether an effect is large or small, a thesis is important or trivial, a cause is fundamental or superficial. Similar controversies may revolve around what the sample size ought to be or whether an event is typical or exceptional. The advantage of explicit quantification is that all these questions have to be discussed openly. Quantification permits the testing of old speculations and the extraction of new insights from materials that are too large and seemingly amorphous to be handled by the ordinary, qualitative narrative approach. Each chapter in this book pursues the thread of one or another explanation through the existing literature, quantifying variables and testing relationships whenever possible. All have certain methodological considerations in common.
Both historians and political scientists have typically identified political instability in Latin America with the "palace revolution" and rapid turnover in the highest government positions. Some 229 men served as presidents or cabinet ministers in the decades following Mexico's independence. They form the core of this study. Political analysts have employed an operational definition of power that closely follows this focus on turnover in government offices. This definition attributes political power to those individuals who occupy formal positions in institutional hierarchies. Whether access to institutions provides power or whether power provides access to institutional position, the correlation between power and position is apparent. Positional analysis provides a simple technique for defining who has power, but it risks missing powerful people who have no formal position in the hierarchy. Such hidden powers may in fact exist, but the tendency in modern bureaucracies for power to be recognized in formal hierarchical position makes this phenomenon less likely to occur. Positional analysis presents clear advantages to both analysis of decision-making and analysis of reputation in defining who has power, while the differences between these techniques in practice have proved to be small.
Short-term explanations of instability frequently emphasize the primacy of economic and fiscal fluctuations. Theorists and historians have suggested that social stratification and political ideology were insignificant sources of conflict and that the roots of instability may be found in the fiscal crises that governments faced in the early republican years. Chapter 2 examines the relationship between annual variation in economic fluctuations, fiscal crises, and political instability.
The remaining chapters examine explanations of instability that begin from a different premise—that there was in all probability as much ideological consistency among Mexican politicians of this period as there would be among those of any nationality at any time. Chapter 3 examines the hypothesis that there was a thread of consistency in the struggles from the time of independence to the end of the Wars of the Reform and the French Intervention. Instability may be explained by the shifting alliances between militarists, conservatives, moderates, and radical liberals and their reliance on the army, the Church, militias, peasants, and urban crowds for political support. Some historians have suggested that these political conflicts were strongly influenced by the social and geographic origins and past experiences of their leaders. Chapter 4 examines explanations based on correlations between ideology and the occupations and careers of the political elite. Chapter 5 measures the effects of geographic origins, training, experience, and political positions on the durability of presidents and cabinet ministers. Chapter 6 reviews hypotheses that suggest a relationship between regional social structures and the origins of political factionalism. Chapter 7 takes a closer look at social stratification and the households of elite politicians resident in Mexico City.CHAPTER 2
Accounting for Caudillos
The prospect of independence promised benefits of increased domestic control of the economy and government to Mexicans with a variety of political and economic interests. But national sovereignty did not fulfill its promise. The Mexican economy faltered, and the violent struggles for control of the government lasted for half a century after independence. And, if the first half-century of independence was a complete disappointment in terms of economic growth and stable government, the next half-century was, at best, no more than a mixed blessing. The economy grew rapidly in the late nineteenth century, but the improvement was accompanied by imposed political stability and increasing social tensions which erupted in the Revolution of 1910. Clearly, the relationship between political stability (or lack thereof) and economic growth (or decline) is fundamental to understanding this period. Yet there is no consensus and little research on the source of the problem. As Robert Potash has noted, "The connection between fiscal difficulties and the political instability that characterized this period has long been assumed, but detailed historical studies of its fiscal philosophy, taxation administration, and deficit financing methods have been rare."
One alternative is to blame the collapse of the Mexican economy after independence on the deleterious effect of political turmoil. John Coatsworth has argued that the two largest obstacles to economic growth in nineteenth-century Mexico were a national geography that made transportation relatively expensive and an inefficient legal structure which hindered the development of modern economic institutions. "The collapse of stable government," he writes, "nullified the potentially positive effects of the changes that accompanied independence and deprived both the new government and the private sector of the resources needed to improve transportation." In other words, the fundamental problem was political; instability had fiscal and legal consequences (low income and failure to innovate) which not only prevented economic growth but led to its decline.
Excerpted from Origins of Instability in Early Republican Mexico by Donald Fithian Stevens. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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